A fortnight ago, I wrote a post about some issues that I have had with my “home church” and the broader concept of “church.” This time I’m not writing about today’s sermon—to be honest, I barely listened to it. I was more occupied with thinking about this post.
I might catch flak for this. Please know I am only speaking on my idea of an ideal church based on my point of view, my experience, and how I understand Scripture. (My experience primarily consists of medium- or mega-sized mainstream, nondenominational evangelical churches.) I have no intention of sounding hostile, whiney, or selfish, and I hope to receive (polite) correction where I am wrong.
I hear the phrase “community outreach” a lot. It’s a big deal in churches these days. Variations on the theme include churches that describe themselves as “seeker-centered” or “a church for non-believers.” It is a way to bring the message of Christ to people in a church’s geographical area, with the intention of bringing those people into the church itself. Community outreach might mean opening food pantries for the poor, offering childcare to working single moms, or serving cookies after church, or helping clean up a local park.
Let me make this clear: Community outreach is a good thing.
But … I’m wondering if churches perhaps make it too high a priority.
Many people complain that the church is too much like an exclusive club. Because that’s considered a very bad thing in today’s egalitarian society, the knee-jerk reaction is to say “That is terrible!” I have done this too. Recently, however, I have come to the conclusion that the church not only is comparable to an exclusive club, but that if it is functioning as it should, it is unavoidably and necessarily so.
Christianity itself is an exclusive faith, both in the object of its worship and in the lives of believers. Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” In I Corinthians 5, Paul says that, while Christians are expected to associate with people outside the faith, he also says “not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person,” (meaning willfully immoral, since not even Christians are perfect all the time) and “not even to eat with such a one.”
The exclusivity of the faith is a source of contention for many, and one of the most popular arguments against it. I myself am not a huge fan of it, and I would change it if I could. Anyone who has been picked last for a team, rejected by the popular group in high school, denied the use of first-class airplane lavatories, or turned down for a job knows the pain of exclusivity. But I’m not writing this post to debate whether that is fair or nice or inconvenient or hurtful. I’m not questioning whether Christianity should be exclusive, but how it should be.
Am I saying that churches should not engage in community service? NO. I already said that community outreach is a good thing. In Matthew 28, Jesus commissions the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations” and teach people “to observe all that I commanded you.” I don’t think Jesus meant for us to see only to spiritual needs and ignore physical needs. It’s not very effective to preach at people who are dying of thirst when you don’t also provide water. God created both the body and the soul, and we should nourish both.
My issue is that I think many churches conduct community outreach at the expense of their own members. I think they’re too focused on getting people into church, and not seeing to their needs once they’re there.
1 John 3:10 specifically says that “Children of God” (followers of Christ) are to love one another: “anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” In verse 16-17 John says, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
What I get from those verses is, Christians should help anyone in need with what they can, but that they should first see to the needs of other Christians. Much like putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you help another with theirs. Instead of trying so hard to get people into church and increase the church attendance numbers, maybe churches should work harder to serve the people who are in it.
Anyone with any amount of church experience can tell you that we Christians are doing a really shitty job of loving each other. Of course we’re not perfect and we will screw it up. But can we really be expected to have deep and lasting impacts on our community when we can’t get our act together within our own walls?
Many churches—especially larger churches—counter this by saying that that’s what small groups are for (or church groups, home groups, Bible studies, etc.). Yet you will find the same problem there, albeit on a smaller scale. While the desire to “reach out” to the community and draw non-churchgoers into the fold may be a good and sincere desire, is it really all that good when it means that members’ sufferings go unheeded? Are you really following God’s commands if you cultivate a relationship with a non-Christian specifically to get them to church, while ignoring the fellow Christian who may also need attention? Is the Body of Christ really such a numbers game?
I’m not saying that the church should stop sending out missionaries, that it should not feed homeless non-Christians, or that it should be closed off to outsiders. But I am noticing a trend in which churches draw people into them, and then, when the person comes to faith in Christ, the church essentially dismisses them with a “Good luck!” and goes back to focusing on bringing in even more people.
Once, I visited a church I used to attend in another city, and the entire sermon was not so much a sermon as a pep rally about getting more people into the church. I was so disappointed because … well … that’s one of the most literal “preaching to the choir” situations I’ve ever seen. We were all already there in church! What more were we supposed to do? What was a new attendee, a person seeking Christ, supposed to make of it?
If a church can be likened to a family, my point might be best illustrated by a hypothetical Christmas family dinner. People not already in the family are warmly welcomed if they want to come, whether they need a meal, company, or a family of their own. The family may extend invitations and tell outsiders how great these Christmas dinners are. They may extend friendship, help, and charity to people who may never attend one of these family dinners. And anyone who wants to join them should not be denied.
But is it the primary duty of the family to get as many people around the dining table as they can? Or is the primary duty instead to love and feed and care for those who are a part of the family already—so that when strangers do come, they see how well the family members treat each other? Would that not also make them want to be a part of it? If a stranger is invited to Christmas dinner, what are they to make of the family itself if at the table they find unresolved conflicts, unfettered sin, cynicism, feelings of loneliness or isolation among members, or members who are ignorant of what Christmas even means?
Yes, a Christian church might be considered an “exclusive” organization. But like any “club,” it should not only welcome new members, but provide benefits to those who are a part of it. Benefits (for example) like friendship, education about the faith, mentorship, material aid if necessary, reminders of the Gospel and what Christ has done for us, and a shared desire to love and serve God.